Navigating the Academic Job Market with Grace and Grit

Here’s how I navigated through the hidden curricula of the academic job market. Hope this is helpful for you. I’m sending positive vibes and good thoughts your way as you prepare for your own journey!

Welcome! 👋

I was on the job market in the academic year of 2023-2024, applying for assistant professor jobs in the social sciences that valued research in journalism and public relations, digital platform governance, and artificial intelligence ethics. I will be an assistant professor in media law and ethics in the Department of Journalism, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, starting September 1.

I’m writing this blog post with the hope of shedding some light on what to expect from the academic job market, sharing some thoughts and strategies I found helpful. Especially for those without a recent graduate to turn to for advice, I want to share my experiences. This is for anyone feeling a bit lost or unprepared about navigating the academic job journey—a friendly guide from someone who’s been there. You’re not alone 💙

Summary of my journey

I knew I would be on the job market for 2023-24 by May, so I started promoting myself being on the job market starting at the AEJMC job hub in August. I applied to around 25 schools for an assistant professor position (including open rank searches) in my field (mostly in journalism, public relations, and other strategic communication fields), and another 10 in computer science and public policy, targeting AI ethics and social science roles despite being less familiar with their culture. After applying to R1s and research-focused R2s known for their strong communities, I received 7 Zoom interview requests (all from journalism, public relations, and other strategic communication fields; none from other fields), progressed to campus visits with three schools, and received two official offers. Ultimately, I accepted the offer from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

What was my goal for the job market?

Obviously, the goal on the academic job market is to find a new academic home. An academic home probably means different things to different people. To me, it was about seeking an environment where there was a sense of community. I imagined an academic community where people not only got along with each other but also appreciated each other’s presence. My ideal academic home was a place where I envisioned myself thriving, surrounded by supportive colleagues, and engaging in a reciprocal relationship of support. And, of course, a place that I could be that colleague to my colleagues. Consequently, the concept of “a good fit,” for me, extended beyond just a match in research interests; it encompassed a fit in values and culture as well.

That being said, if I wanted to find the right institution for me, I needed to know who I was first. These are the questions I asked myself, before going on the job market: Who am I as a scholar? How do I position myself? What is my philosophy of research and teaching? What are some values I bring to the field that I would never ever compromise because that would change who I am? What kind of environment and community do I want to be in? What did I like about my current institution that I wanted to also seek in my new institution? What are the things that I don’t get in my current institution that I’d love to have in my new academic home?

I wanted to confidently demonstrate these questions for myself because these would then be the criteria I would evaluate the institutions I was interviewing with. Without my own standards, then it would have been harder for me to find a “good fit” because fit is mutually-dependent.

What is a “good fit” anyway?

For me, searching for a “good fit” was to find an institution I would be happy and vice versa. I wanted the institution to hire me because the people there like me and like what I do. To me, finding a good fit was finding a good community.

I know—“good fit” is such a vague term. I’ve also been confused about what people mean when they say “a good fit.” From my experience, I concluded that “a good fit” means that the candidate possesses the qualities that the institution prioritizes, and vice versa. Thus, “a good fit” means different things to different people and institutions. If you value work-life balance, an institution that has a publish-or-perish culture will not work for you; it’s not a “good fit” regardless of whatever prestige the name holds. All academic communities are different and have different priorities. For example, not all institutions prioritize the number of publications. You’ll have to do some digging and asking around to figure this out.

What I learned from my job market experience is that honesty is the best policy. To find a good fit, it was important for both the search committee and me, as a job candidate, to openly share information. For this to work, two things had to happen: first, the committee had to be clear about what they want; second, I had to be clear about what I’m looking for. The first part is something I couldn’t change; although as a candidate, I could at least use it as a cue to learn about the community. If the committee isn’t open about what they want, that was a red flag for me. If I’m already trying to read between the lines as a candidate, who know’s what kind of politics I will have to navigate if hired?

The second part was up to me. I could choose to be honest about what I’m looking for. Of course, that’s easier said than done. When I was job hunting, the temptation to match the perfect candidate image from the job ad was really strong. I was told to “not look desperate because it’s unattractive,” but what if you are desperate? I’ve been in that spot, and I understand. However, I learned that pretending doesn’t help anyone. If I pretend to be someone I’m not and get hired by a place that’s not a good fit for me, I’d either have to keep pretending forever or end up disappointing them, and I wouldn’t be happy either. So, as a job seeker, being myself was actually the best approach for me to find a place that I’d be happy.

For me, this involved being transparent about the fact that I am an interdisciplinary scholar, a mixed-method social science researcher, and that I use critical and normative theories as a framework. If an institution was looking for a scholar strictly confined to one discipline, committed to a single methodology, and less critical/normative, then I would not be a good fit for them. I could have tried to present myself as someone who only engages in one of the methods I use, or focuses on a single subfield, or downplays the critical/normative aspect of my research, but I chose not to. This was important because what they saw was what they would get if they hired me; this was the kind of research I intended to pursue. I aimed to end up in a place that would value me for what I do.

I also wanted to maintain a good work-life balance and be happy. I was vocal about these priorities during interviews and meetings. Some appreciated it, while others were not really fans. And that’s okay. The whole purpose of putting myself out there was to find out who supported my vision of scholarly life. It was worth it.

Mentally preparing yourself for a faculty job

The best piece of advice I’ve ever received from mentors I truly admire is to always remember that I’m competing for a faculty position, not a student one. It might sound obvious, but adopting this mindset was a real game-changer for me. For me, being a faculty member boils down to two key aspects: first, the effective balance of research, teaching, and service; and second, ensuring my research doesn’t just tick boxes but actually pioneers new directions in my field. Therefore, my cover letter and job talk primarily emphasized these two areas.

For PhD candidates or ABDs (all-but-dissertations) entering the job market, shedding the graduate student identity is challenging. It took me a year to fully understand what moving beyond this identity means. As students, we can get too caught up in research being everything, obsessing over how many publications we have, and trying to showcase our research skills. However, I would like to say this mindset is not helpful, at least on the academic job market.

So, what else should we concentrate on? From my experience, it’s about highlighting the skills that aren’t directly spelled out on your CV but are crucial for a future faculty member. First, regarding research, I aimed to demonstrate how my work contributes significantly to my field, offering fresh perspectives on established issues. I’ve found that illustrating the direction and impact of your research is more crucial than the sheer number of your publications. As a faculty member, your research should not only influence your students but also your peers and the broader community. It’s about showing that your research will have a meaningful impact on all those you interact with, making the quality of your contributions more significant than their quantity.

Equally important, I felt that the capability to juggle research, teaching, and service responsibilities effectively was valued a lot on the job market. Thus, I emphasized my experience in teaching relevant courses at my current institution, alongside my research and contributions to the field’s service. Because faculty members are expected to teach a certain number of courses each year, starting from day one, the transition from student to instructor requires a demonstrated ability to teach, in addition to fulfilling the other demands of the role.

Promoting yourself on the academic job market

First of all, don’t be ashamed to promote the fact that you’re on the job market. It took practice, of course, but I made an effort to let people know I was on the job market whenever possible, and it was totally worth it. For example, this meant saying I’m on the job market immediately after introducing myself to someone, as if the phrase “I’m on the job market” was part of my name.

You see, there is no one place that all job ads will be listed - not even job wiki. So, you have to rely on people and institutions sending you job ads when they spot any in their networks, and this is when weak ties really, really matter. Let people know that you’re on the job market and ask them to send job ads and links your way. Sometimes people will tell you there’s a job ad coming out soon in their institution, so you can keep an eye out for the job ad when it’s out. I’ve seen several job ads that have only existed through word-of-mouth.

Also, smaller regional/divisional conferences help! Even if you’ve only been to ICA or NCA, I recommend going to smaller regional/divisional conferences when you’re on the job market. For public relations this would be IPRRC, for advertising this would be AAA. If you do local journalism, there’s the Local Journalism Researchers Workshop. Find the smaller niche conferences - this is best for networking and promoting yourself.

I also suggest going to the AEJMC job hub if possible. Opinions on this vary, but I recommend it based on my positive experience. First, it provided me with valuable practice in researching institutions, interviewing, and delivering elevator pitches, particularly since I was on the job market for the first time. Even if my dream job wasn’t listed on the job hub, I found that word travels fast, and AEJMC offered a perfect opportunity to use word-of-mouth to let people and institutions know that I was on the job market. Through the people I networked at AEJMC, I was able to recieve new job ads that came out afterwards.

Get support whenever you can

I needed support throughout my journey, and you will too. I learned that even the most experienced professionals seek guidance. In fact, asking for help became one of the most valuable skills I developed while on the job market, a skill that I’ll continue to rely on throughout my career. You know what? Academics are accustomed to seeking and offering help; it’s a standard part of the process. No one will think less of you for seeking support. Assistant professors ask associate professors for advice on achieving tenure, associate professors consult with full professors about promotion, and professors looking to secure a book contract seek assistance from those who have already succeeded. I can confidently tell you: seeking help smoothed every step of my journey. Here are some strategies to seek the support you need while on the job market:

1. Find community with other students on the job market

First and foremost, I realized I wasn’t alone. Connecting with many other students who were navigating the same challenges in the job market was incredibly beneficial for my mental and emotional well-being. Sharing experiences, tips, and even job leads transformed the job search from an isolating experience into a collaborative effort. It was comforting to have friends who understood exactly what I was going through, and we supported each other throughout.

2. Ask mentors and colleagues to review your materials and watch your mock job talks

Preparing my application materials and practicing for interviews wasn’t something I did in isolation. Involving a network of mentors, colleagues, and peers for feedback was crucial. Their insights ensured I presented myself in the best possible light, offering perspectives I hadn’t considered and suggesting improvements that significantly impacted my approach.

Beyond all the feedback and advice received from mentors and colleagues, I felt genuinely loved and valued during this process. Involving my mentors and colleagues not only provided me with critical insights but also allowed me to experience their support, positive energy, and good thoughts. They often expressed how valued I am in our community.

If you have supportive mentors and colleagues, definitely reach out to them to boost your confidence and self-esteem. If you don’t, I’m truly sorry. I recognize that having a supportive network isn’t guaranteed in academia. That’s why going to conferences and connecting with people in the field is so important. That’s how I met several of my mentors who have been anything but supportive. Also, please feel free to reach out to me.

3. Ask for advice and support from every professor you meet

Whenever I encountered a professor, whether from my own institution or at conferences, I seized the opportunity to ask for advice and support. Assistant professors, having navigated the job market successfully not long ago, offered me invaluable insights based on their fresh experiences. Many were generous enough to share their job market materials with me, which provided practical examples and benchmarks for my own applications.

I also engaged with associate and full professors, who brought a wealth of experience from serving on search committees. Their perspectives were invaluable, offering a glimpse into what committees value in candidates. From these conversations, I learned about the nuances of what makes an application stand out and the diverse qualities sought after at different institutions.

The great thing about connecting with faculty members is that I not only received useful advice, but they also assisted in promoting me by mentioning my name whenever an institution was starting to hire. They were the best advocates!

4. Give yourself fun time and meeting friends outside

The academic job market can be a long and grueling process. Stretching over more than half a year for most people, sometimes it can take multiple years to find your new home. Maintaining my happiness and energy was crucial for presenting my best self to interviewers. I found that all work and no play made me very unhappy and didn’t even help me be productive either, so taking breaks to enjoy hobbies or simply relax was essential for my mental health and keeping my energy levels up. I made small adventures with my partners to find new cute coffee shops, try new recipes, and go to the gym together. I also made a trip back to South Korea during the job market to see family and reconnect with loved ones. These breaks provided me with fresh perspectives on my job search, and I do not regret it at all.

Parting thoughts: embracing the journey

As I reflect on my journey and prepare to embark on my new role at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, I’m filled with gratitude for the experiences that have led me here. The academic job market is undoubtedly challenging, with its highs and lows, but it’s also a journey of self-discovery and growth. I’ve learned the importance of knowing myself, seeking support, and staying true to my values and goals. I’ve been reminded of the generosity of the academic community and the strength that comes from collective encouragement and wisdom.

To those of you embarking on or currently navigating this path, remember: you are not alone. The road may seem long and uncertain at times, but every step you take is a step towards finding your place in the academic world—a place where you can thrive, contribute, and make a difference. Stay true to yourself, lean on your support network, and don’t be afraid to reach out for help or offer it to others.

And finally, remember to take care of yourself. The journey is as important as the destination. Allow yourself moments of rest, joy, and reflection. These moments will not only sustain you but also enrich your journey and the person you become along the way.

I’m sending all my best wishes and positive vibes your way. May you find your academic home where you are valued, supported, and inspired. And remember, I’m here to lend an ear, offer advice, or simply cheer you on. You’ve got this!

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Find me at @HeesooJang2 on Twitter/X or at heesoojang at umass dot edu